This week in Utakoi, we have one of the most celebrated Japanese authors on our show-Murasaki Shikibu, the author of ‘The Tale of Genji! Will she overcome her writers block and wistful heart to write the next great Japanese novel?
When I saw the name Murasaki Shikibu, I knew that it was going to involve her famous novel at least once. Although I haven’t read ‘The Tale of Genji’, I have heard about it from browsing through articles while bored (and in Persona 3 too, during its tense pop quizzes).
Also, I was also a bit curious to see how the rival of Sei Shonagon would be portrayed. As you know, Murasaki was part of Empress Shoshi’s court, which triumphed over Empress Teishi’s court, a court which included Sei Shonagon. Fortunately, there’s no mention of politics here and Utakoi focuses on another aspect of love-friendship. If you’d like to read about the whole messy business though, here’s an explanation from Wikipedia.
Well, on to the show!
Long last we meet, only for me to leave hurriedly,
For I could not recognize you,
Like the moon hidden behind the clouds.
At first glance, this poem seems like a simple poem about a long-lost love. But, that’s the case if you look at it through the lens of Utakoi. According to the author of the blog “One Thousand Summers”:
The interpretations of this poem differ depending on whether we take the headnote in Murasaki Shikibu kashū (collection of poems) to be written by herself or not. The note says that she had known someone as a child and briefly met that person, who hurriedly left, as if going after the moon - like the moon hidden behind the clouds. The person is believed to be a woman, whom the poet compares to the moon. Then, the poem, even though it sounds like a love poem, uta koi, would be a poem about an old friend.
As he/she says, this poem can also be interpreted as Murasaki longing for her old friend. However, that’s further complicated by the fact that some words in the poem can be taken to mean something else:
Meguriaite has a meaning of ‘meet by chance’ but can also mean ‘partners on a pilgrimage’. Sore to mo is ‘if it were/as if’ and sore tomo is ‘one-time friend’. Kakure nishi can mean ‘had hidden’ or ‘western refuge’, while nishi means ‘the two’ and kumogakure means ‘disappearance’.
Now that’s a headache…Personally, I can’t appreciate complex hidden meanings behind poems since I typically judge stuff based on their face value. But since Utakoi’s going with the friendship angle without changing history too much, I think I’ll go with that version.
Once the words ‘unattainable love’ came out of Murasaki’ mouth, I was expecting the worst. ‘Oh God, please don’t let this be a shoehorned yuri love story!’ summed up what I was thinking then. As Fujiko reminisced about her past, however, it became clear to me that she sees Fujiko as more of a dear friend. Sure, she seems infatuated at times by the seme part of the duo, but it doesn’t develop into anything more than platonic love.
More importantly than yuri though, is the support that Fujiko provides to Murasaki for her writing. She may not have realized, but her support gave birth to a literary masterpiece! Watching her encourage Fujiko, I kinda wish that I had that kind of encouragement daily while writing. It makes a whole lot of difference when someone tells you face-to-face that your writing was good.
Heian Women Have it Tough…
Even before that, we find various characters lamenting that Murasaki was not born a male, including the talented writer herself and her father. Frankly, her father’s two-faced approach to his daughter’s talents was sickening. Rightly praising her at first for an impressive talent in reading Chinese classics and later secretly lamenting her gender? That’s low, even if the society then was patriarchal.
That’s not all though, the real humiliation comes when the strong and brash Fujiko turns into a meek and subordinate wife. When Fujiko gave that pained and embarrassed glance before departing, you could feel the pain Murasaki must’ve felt. I know I would be shattered if something like that happened.
Later, as Murasaki thinks about their promise in a beautiful scene (the moon mirroring Murasaki’s feelings was quite a nice touch), Murasaki concludes that Fujiko was forced into her undignified role. Wanting to reach out to Fujiko and presumably thank her for her encouragement all those years ago, Murasaki decides to write about the strength that women have.
In the end, Fujiko acts again as a catalyst for Murasaki by giving her a route out of her slump. Quite a fitting end, ain’t it?
…but Kinto has it tougher
The opening part was a pleasant surprise. Not only does arrogant Kinto fail spectacularly and into a slump, Yukinari shows his manipulative side too. Still, wouldn’t it have been better to place this ‘filler’ at the tail end of the show after we’ve got to know the real Murasaki? Besides that though, anybody else notice how panicked Murasaki sounds while being taken hostage by a brush-wielding Yukinari? Man, that was some fine voice acing! You could definitely tell she was stressed from the threat of…er, stained clothes? Sadly, the earlier scene with Kinto made me see her as a grumpy fanfic writer…XD
What went right
- Snug historical references and interpretations
- Focus on the darker side of life for Heian women
- Touching theme on friendship.
What went wrong
- Odd filler-ish start to the episode.
- Teika and Yoritsuna’s rather strange/odd entrance.
What would you have done if you were in Murasaki’s shoes when seeing Fujiko leave?
Has the role of women in society changed much from the Heian days, especially in Japan or your home country?
What do you think of Fujiko’s predicament? Was she just too scared to take a risk and refuse marriage or was she forced into it?
Well, that’s all for now. See you soon!